How the Fear of Death Makes People More Right-Wing

A string of terror attacks across the globe have shaken the world’s most powerful nations to their core. As a result of these tragic events, and the fear-mongering from politicians hoping to exploit them, many feel that an existential threat is nigh.


To make matters worse, a highly influential and experimentally verified theory from social psychology predicts that, as long as an existential threat looms, the world will grow ever more divided and increasingly hostile. Terror management theory (TMT) explains how and why events that conjure up thoughts about death cause people to cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews – siding with those who share their national, ethnic or political identity, while aggressively opposing those who do not.

Consequently, sharp increases in deadly terror attacks around the world serve to create a sweeping psychological condition that sets the stage for waves of far-Right nationalist movements that encourage prejudice, intolerance and hostility toward dissimilar others.

Europe’s nationalist surge, Brexit in the United Kingdom and the presidency win for Donald Trump in the United States are just the most recent demonstrations of TMT, first proposed by social psychologists in the 1980s and derived from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work of philosophy and psychology, The Denial of Death (1973).

Becker’s big idea was that much of human action is motivated by a fear of death. Unlike other animals, which lack higher cognition and the ability to reflect, humans recognise the inevitability of their own death. The conflict that results from this realisation and the natural desire to live produces cognitive dissonance that causes profound terror and anxiety. According to Becker, humans invented culture as a buffer for the terror. By adopting cultural worldviews that instil life with meaning and value, one can effectively manage the subconscious dread that is always bubbling below the surface.

While religions offer a path to literal immortality through the belief in an afterlife, non-religious cultural worldviews – such as political ideologies and national identities – provide paths to symbolic immortality. Symbolic immortality refers to being part of something larger that will ultimately outlive the individual, such as a great nation or a movement with a collective identity and pursuit. Much of human effort is dedicated to acts that might help one be remembered by groups or society long after death.

Of course, no matter how logical or intriguing a theory might sound, it is merely speculation if it makes no testable predictions that can be confirmed or disproven by experiment and measurement. What might be most impressive about TMT is how much success it has had in the laboratory. Hundreds of empirical studies have provided support for the theory by confirming something called the mortality salience hypothesis.

According to this hypothesis, if we do in fact adopt cultural worldviews to curb a fear of death – as TMT posits – then reminders of our mortality should produce actions that serve to strengthen faith in our worldviews. Specifically, death reminders should motivate individuals to invest more in groups to which they belong and, conversely, to act more aggressively towards those with different cultural worldviews and national or ethnic identities.

A particularly amusing experiment used hot sauce to measure the phenomenon. Students were broken into two groups and asked to write an essay about their own death or another, more benign topic. They were then presented with someone who did or did not disparage their political views, and asked to decide on the amount of mouth-burning hot sauce that person should have to consume. In line with TMT and the mortality salience hypothesis, participants who’d written about death allocated a large dollop of hot sauce to those who didnt share their worldview, while those in the control condition did not.

Another mortality salience study on aggression conducted on both Iranian and US college students shows disturbing results. One group of students was asked to ‘jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die,’ and to describe the emotions aroused. Participants in the control condition were given similar questions related to dental pain. The results showed that Iranian students who were made to think about death were more supportive of martyrdom attacks against the US, while those in the control condition opposed them. Similarly, death reminders made US students who identified as politically conservative more supportive of extreme military attacks on foreign nations that could kill thousands of civilians.

From these findings, it is easy to see how nations under attack can quickly grow more divided and increasingly hostile towards those from outside cultures. In fact, studies have shown that mortality salience can amplify nationalism and intensify bias against other groups. Evidence suggests that reminders of death can even influence elections, pushing voters to favour candidates on the Right. Five weeks before the 2004 US presidential election, scientists conducted studies on New Jersey voters to see whether mortality reminders influenced voting directly. Participants were given the same questions about death as the Iranian students in the previously mentioned study, while those in the control condition received parallel questions about watching television. What they found was pretty astonishing. Those voters prompted to think of death said they intended to vote for George W Bush, the hawkish conservative president, by a three-to-one margin; those prompted to think about TV strongly favoured the Left-wing challenger, John Kerry. Such results could help to explain why, after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, Bush went from having some of the lowest approval ratings ever to being extremely popular with both Republicans and Democrats.

So what does this all mean for the world today? If massively destructive terror attacks continue, terror management theory predicts that societies will grow exponentially more chaotic and divided. Heightened aggression towards dissimilar others produces a tendency to favour war over peace. Right-wing nationalism will thrive along with prejudice and intolerance. Islamic fundamentalism will flourish while terror attacks grow more frequent. Raised tensions between nations, ethnicities and political groups will lead to further conflict, creating a devastating feedback loop of suspicion and violence.

But it is critical that we not lose optimism in these challenging times. By becoming cognisant of the inflammatory and divisive effect that death reminders and perceived existential threat have on all of us, we can begin to take steps toward defending against it. After each terrorist attack we must actively work to unite groups with different nationalities, ethnicities and cultural worldviews. We must help build bridges between dissimilar communities, and discourage ideas such as immigration bans. And we must be conscious of the way some politicians use fear-mongering and propaganda to manipulate voters. Such efforts, combined with a calm and cool temperament, can help manage the terror of mortality in ways that preserve rationality, compassion and peace.

Bobby Azarian

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.